“Designing Social Cities of Tomorrow” workshop – presentation notes

On February 17, the international  “Social Cities of Tomorrow” conference was held in Amsterdam. Prior to this conference, a three-day “Designing Social Cities of Tomorrow” workshop was held in which international participants from various professional backgrounds collaborated with local stakeholder organisations on 4 real-world urban cases: Urban Pioneers Zeeburgereiland (Amsterdam), Haagse Havens (The Hague), Strijp-S (Eindhoven), and Amsterdam Civic Innovator Network. On February 16, the results of this workshop were presented in a sold-out hall. Fortunately, I managed to get one of the last tickets. I was particularly interested in this workshop, as I thought it might generate some concrete ideas to help us co-create the new Tilburg Spoorzone. I was not disappointed, and really very pleased with the overall quality, originality, and feasibility of the ideas.

For the first three cases, quite detailed “how to do it” plans were unfolded, the presentation of the fourth case focused on the theoretical underpinnings of a civic innovator network. A good summary by Laurent Hubeek of the presentations  of case 1 & 2 can be found here, that of case 3 & 4 here. I took detailed notes during the case presentations. They’re rather rough, but I include them here to capture the atmosphere and as an additional recording of the insights presented. Hopefully they help to inspire further thinking.


Hi-tech is increasingly influencing life in today’s cities.  “Smart Cities” are hot.  The main problem with these visions: where are the people?! Can we use the same hi-tech to make the cities more social instead of (just) smart? The key question therefore is:  How can we use digital technologies to make our cities more social, rather than just more hi-tech?
Social cities: it’s not about a blueprint, but a design approach. It’s a way of thinking about cities that are highly technological, but which is not about the technology itself,  but about the people. Now,  how do you design for social cities? How do you engage and empower publics (groups of people) to act on communally shared issues?
The digital element leads to a qualitative shift:
  • There’s a new resource: the data the city is generating
  • Name issues in new ways, discover patterns, bring up/visualize new issues in ways you couldn’t do before
  • Engage people, give them a new sense of place (e.g. storytelling, urban gaming)
  • Ways how we organize ourselves: peer-to-peer organization around issues

Taking this into account, the questions posed to the teams were:

  • How can we get citizens to feel they belong and feel that the city belongs to them as well?
  • How do we design for ‘ownership’?
Case 1: TEMPLoT (= temporary plot)
Municipalities are plagued by having many unused vacant parcels.  Zeeburgereiland Amsterdam is a typical case. However, most of Europe is dealing with same issues. Key idea: “temporary” could become the stimulus.
Nothing is happening on Zeeburgereiland, it is literally a no go zone. The city idea was to make it available as a 10 year-lease for 1 euro. Why not make it much more temporary:  what  if the urban pioneer was only given the land for 365 days instead of 10 years? The temp architecture initiative wants experts to meet some place to advise new urban pioneers to do something “tomorrow”. These expert roles are: owner, developer, designer, manager. However, what if the urban pioneers are the experts? Individuals could start playing those roles themselves. To do so, maybe these urban pioneers don’t need a place but a platform? This system consisting of a website plus apps could be TEMPLoT.
Zeeburgereiland = 3,6 ha plot minus 15% infrastructure. Possible uses: Recreation? Entertainment, Amusement, Do Nothing? As the area is sandwiched between superdense neighbourhoods: what if its main use were a garden? It could provide a temp infrastructure consisting of private parcels, plus an area for a larger community “Contribution Zone”. Flex spaces  would be adjacent to private spaces, which can help in the building of mini communities. Manage the collective usage online via TEMPLoT.
Follow the seasonal life cycle: in December, start planning the temp infrastructure, in January, do the bidding process, after that the building and planting etc., use summer for enjoying festivals, then in October/November, do the clean up process. Coordination can happen online. The flex space is the negotiation space (through bidding) between the neighbours. Contribution zone: everybody has to contribute something there (time, energy, skills & knowledge, teaching, network, etc.). These contributions are visible in your online profile, so your neighbors know your involvement. Potential individual uses: relaxation, family plot, artist studio, etc.
Stakeholder organization response:
It for sure is possible. It could become a way of “citymaking”. Should not only be gardens, however, the area could also be used in another way. A potential problem is that  people like it so much that they don’t want to leave? Also, the app used in the plotting process should be simple. What if it would also allow pioneers to change plot? Would be great if it could also help to increase the skills of participants.
Impressed by the “back to basics” approach. This is refreshing, as city design has become so (unnecessarily) complex these days. Nice it’s so hands-on.
Commitment:  the tender for Zeeburgereiland is already out, we could add this digital approach. Every city in Europe has such a map of vacant plots. Many other cities could also apply this approach: investigate how other cities can be involved?
Audience response: 
There’s a similar project in Ghent, Belgium. It’s about gardens, people could buy it with invented city currency, so that everybody could afford a plot, also those without money. You put in your effort and got the virtual currency. However, what was the duration of the lease? The temp focus is very important.

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